University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of EngineeringSpring/Summer 2013
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Emerging Engineers Clockwise from top left; Anita Sarma, Jinsong Huang, Angela Pannier and Linxia Gu.




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The UNL College of Engineering is the proud home to four new National Science Foundation CAREER Award winners in 2012-13. Faculty Early Career Development Program Awards from the National Science Foundation are prestigious honors for pre-tenure faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research.

Developing today's complex computer software can involve thousands of people working—sometimes at cross purposes—in numerous locations on millions of lines of interconnected code.

Anita Sarma, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, earned a five-year, $500,000 Faculty Early Career Development Program Award from the National Science Foundation to develop her solution to help streamline today’s complex software development process.

She aims to resolve problems that arise when programmers are unaware of what others have done or when merging code into one program can delay development by months or even years. Worse, software may be released with defects.

"My research goal is helping software developers be more efficient and productive," Sarma said.

Real-time monitoring is a start. A programmer can know, for example, when others are working on the same file. But so far flagging of potential conflicts has not solved the issues.

"What I'm doing is proactive," she said. "In what context is Developer A making the change, and how are the changes going to affect Developer B's work right now?"

Sarma uses data-mining techniques to analyze software records, then makes predictions about future programming. She can then model relationships between tasks, called constraints: if x happens, then y results—toward a constraint-solving program.

Her solution will be available as a plug-in for Eclipse, a popular program for developing software.

Sarma also is using her CAREER award to develop curricula designed to teach college and high school students how to collaborate more effectively. Short, hands-on activities will help students learn to listen effectively, build on and negotiate ideas together and engage in constructive scientific arguments. She said she hopes the fun and engaging exercises will encourage more young people to choose science careers.

Jinsong Huang, assistant professor of mechanical & materials engineering, envisions a future when solar energy devices will become so inexpensive and pliable that nearly any surface, including windows and clothing, will harness the sun. He earned a five-year, $400,000 Faculty Early Career Development Program to continue his research into solar cell development.

"Solar is one of the most renewable and convenient energies," Huang said. It’s currently expensive, compared to other sources, so “we want to make solar competitive with other types of energy."

So far, silicon-based solar cells are efficient, but expensive to produce and limited in their use, Huang said.

Organic polymers, or plastics, which are cheaper and more flexible, are less energy efficient. Huang and his colleagues are working to improve organic polymers' efficiency as a semiconductor. They discovered that placing a layer of ultrathin ferroelectric polymer between each electrode and the organic polymer increases the solar cell device's energy efficiency.

With a goal of increasing the material’s energy conversion efficiency up to 15 or 20 percent, Huang said “we are almost halfway to that." This CAREER award will help Huang continue perfecting organic polymer solar cells using ferroelectric material to increase efficiency.

With cheaper material and fabrication costs, organic polymers may allow solar cells to be made as quickly and easily as printing off the daily newspaper, Huang said. The material's pliability may allow future solar cells to be easily and inconspicuously incorporated into clothing, laptop bags and tents, or even added to existing buildings by simply pasting them onto windows.

Huang is preparing an educational workshop on solar engineering and engineering careers, aimed for Nebraska high school students. A demonstration of Huang’s research is also being developed for the University of Nebraska State Museum.


Each year, more than a million Americans receive stents to prop open clogged heart arteries and other blood vessels, but many can suffer reblockages. Linxia Gu’s research may help save people from this debilitating and sometimes fatal complication.

Gu, assistant professor of mechanical & materials engineering, earned a five-year, $406,248 NSF Faculty Early Career Development Program Award to continue her research.

Stents or stent-based techniques are popular treatments for coronary heart disease and other arterial narrowing, as well as for aneurysm repair. These tiny mesh tubes are inserted using a minimally invasive procedure to keep arteries open.

Sometimes, however, vascular cells within the arterial wall react to the stent by making new cells that can build up and restrict blood flow, called in-stent restenosis.

To understand the fundamental mechanism of restenosis, Gu said, "I try to look at it from the cell-tissue-stent interface to see what causes this kind of arterial response."
She uses powerful resources at UNL, including the Holland Computing Center, and a scanning probe microscope with the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience, to advance cellular modeling and tissue mechanics.

Gu aims to integrate cell and tissue behaviors to better predict what is occurring during in-stent restenosis. This knowledge will help researchers improve prevention and treatment options, and help manufacturers design better stents. This multi-scale strategy also could be used to interpret other clinical observations, such as aortic aneurysm and traumatic brain injury.

She is also eager to use her NSF award to recruit women and students from other underrepresented groups into the mechanical engineering field. She'll recruit graduate and undergraduate students, particularly women, to work on and learn from this project.

UNL biomedical engineer Angela Pannier is using nanotechnology to develop a gene delivery tool that could unleash the power of gene therapy.

Pannier, assistant professor of biological systems engineering, earned a five-year, $419,051 NSF CAREER Award to continue her research on a gene delivery tool to employ DNA in correcting genetic problems, treating disease or boosting healing.

A Nebraska Engineering alumna, Pannier works on 3-D nanostructured surfaces that use the spaces between nano-sized columns to hold large amounts of DNA, similar to a toothbrush loaded with toothpaste. Touching the nanostructure to the cell unloads the DNA.

She is also designing the surfaces so that touching the ends of the columns, or bristles, to the cell alters it in ways that make it more or less receptive to receiving genes. The genes could come from the nanostructured surface itself, or elsewhere, such as the bloodstream.

Her work could help deliver genes to cure genetic diseases, such as cystic fibrosis or hemophilia, or even treat some cancers, cardiovascular conditions and other diseases. The nanostructure surfaces also could be used in biotechnology research and in sensors to help detect molecules in the environment, such as toxic gases or microbial contaminants.

Part of UNL's Center for Nanohybrid Functional Materials, Pannier collaborates with UNL electrical engineers Mathias Schubert and Eva Franke-Schubert to fabricate and study the nanostructured surfaces.

"We think that (these surfaces) are going to change the field of biomaterials and drug and gene delivery because you can deliver so many different things. It's unlimited, really," she said.

With her CAREER award, Pannier enhances UNL's biomedical engineering curriculum by emphasizing learning through primary literature and hands-on laboratory exercises. She also will provide research experiences for high school and undergraduate students, as well as design outreach workshops and curricula for high school teachers to use in their classrooms.


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